At the Intersection of Sound and Dance: New Chamber Ballet + Variant 6 present Munu Munu

by Winfield Maben for The Dance Journal

On Thursday, March 12 Munu Munu, a collaboration between New Chamber Ballet and Variant 6, premiered at The Performance Garage. The work not only investigated the relationship between music and movement with Variant 6 providing live accompaniment for the dancers but also sought to disrupt the traditional confines of performance by placing itself “in the round” with no section of audience explicitly defined as the “front”. The result of this was choreography that seemed drawn towards the center as dancers revolved around an unseen axis throughout most of the performance. These cyclical revolutions reflected the nature of the music, a selection of pieces by Toby Twinning as well as Medieval music dating back as far as the 1300’s, which often seemed to cycle and swirl in time with the dancers; coming together to form a mesmerizing whole.

The performance, separated into 11 sections, traces a steady escalation; starting in complete darkness Variant 6 performs the titular Munu Munu alone as three dancers move into position. The melody is haunting and hypnotic and serves as a gateway for the audience, taking them out of the theater and into the realm of the performance. The lights come up on three dancers sitting together, hands clasped, in a circle on the floor. Their movement is circuitous, playing into the theme of cycles and repetition established by Variant 6’s opening.

Piece by piece this dynamic builds as eventually, the movement of the trio becomes more rapid, taking on movements that suggest pushing and pulling as they begin to climb one another, eventually coming to stand. One powerful image that served as an anchor point in the work as a whole was when the three simultaneously arched into backward-tabletop positions, balancing on one another in a circle of support as they reached skyward. Holding this position, statuesque, as Variant 6 continued to perform music hundreds of years old brought an air of creative and artistic lineage to the moment; further grounding the audience in this n reality.

It’s here that two more dancers enter the picture, rotating around the established trio until finally coming to rest on one another back to back. As more bodies are added to the stage the pace quickens as arms quickly wrap and intertwine before the cast as a whole begins to move about the stage, each in their own graceful orbit. In the midst of this orbiting solos are performed, constantly drawing the audience’s eye to different parts of the stage as dancers move in and out of their circuitous journeys.

The pace quickens further, introducing short hops which eventually leads the entire group to gather in a central circle marking the transition to the eighth section entitled Hell’s Kitchen Hootenanny which was a personal highlight. In this section, the energy of the work as a whole hits its climax as dancers pique and chasse about the space in a manner reminiscent of European folk dances. This highlights the intersection of the new and old present in both the music and dance, the confluence of past and present and how they can be re-purposed together to create something new. The tabletop image returns here, albeit with more sharp arm gestures in keeping with the dynamic arc of the work and other partnering moments also make appearances, standing out as long sustained images among the chaos.

After this, the arc begins to settle. Movements become statuesque and languid again as dancers move in and out of stillness. While the energy does return, it’s clear that the hootenanny was the peak of the performance’s energy and that things are headed to a close. Dancers playfully bounce and move in and out of one another in a way that’s almost game-like. Finally, the work concludes with a section in which the dancers finally seem to truly notice one another, making sharp eye contact and revolving around each other in a way that could be perceived as confrontational. Bringing the swirling, orbital nature of the choreography to one last high point before a quick fade to black and the applause of the audience.

Munu Munu navigates its exploration of the choreo-musical relationship expertly, blending the two forms in a way that is at times hypnotic and at others enthralling. Pulling from the past and present to paint a picture that while contemporary is also acutely aware of its heritage and utilizes its “in the round” staging to highlight the orbital nature of both its song and dance components. These components all contribute to the success of the work as a whole in creating an immersive world of movement in sound from which, by the end, the audience was remiss to leave.

About Winfield Maben

Winfield Maben is a Philadelphia based writer and dancer and an aspiring member of the greater Philadelphia area dance community. He graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2018 with a BA in Dance & English and has previously conducted several features for the Lehigh Valley Dance Exchange. He has worked with several established choreographers including Tiffany Mills, Sharon Vazanna, and Trinette Singleton and has performed in a variety of unique locations including Triskelion Arts (Brooklyn, NY), ArtisTree (Pomfret, VT), and the Brooklyn Bridge. Winfield aims to explore the art of dance through the multidisciplinary approach that was emphasized in his education, not only examining the physicality of a given work but also the intentionality and cultural impact of the work as a whole.

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